Shirley Hazzard obituary

Acclaimed novelist, close friend of Graham Greene and critic of the UN

Shirley Hazzard, who has died aged 85, was a writer of fiction, not poetry, but she had a copious memory for verse, and it is fair to say that a line of Browning, plucked from memory in an Italian cafe in the late 1960s, led to one of the most important friendships of her life. Hazzard was completing the Times crossword while sipping coffee in the piazzetta, the central square on the isle of Capri, one morning, when she recognised a man at the neighbouring table as Graham Greene. In the course of conversation, he began to quote a poem by Browning, but stalled at the last line. Hazzard supplied it (the poem was The Lost Mistress; the line, “Or so very little longer”) and left the cafe.

She and her husband, Francis Steegmuller, became close friends with Greene and his companion, Yvonne Cloetta, often dining together at Gemma’s restaurant, just off the piazzetta. Both couples kept houses on the island, and in 2000, Hazzard published a fine, brief memoir, Greene on Capri, which gave as much space to the elder writer’s difficult and occasionally cruel nature as to his attractiveness and talent.

Hazzard was born in Sydney, Australia. Her father was Welsh, her mother Scottish, from Dunfermline: both were immigrants who worked for the company building the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Shirley attended Queenwood school for girls, but left at the age of 16 when her father, an engineer, was sent to Hong Kong by the Australian government to explore possibilities for trade.

From there, he took other posts, eventually landing in New York, which was to become his daughter’s home; she came to be a joint citizen of Britain and the US. Hazzard described the period of shuffling from country to country as “ghastly years for me”. Her mother suffered a bipolar condition – Hazzard called her “a destroyer, who sees herself as a perpetual victim” – and her father was an alcoholic. In one instance, just as their teenage daughter was falling in love, the entire family moved again. “It would have been easy to die,” Hazzard said in an interview with the Paris Review (2005). “But, oddly, one didn’t.”

The experiences appear to have given her a melancholy relationship with her earlier self. She described Australian history as “bad news”, and in her novel The Great Fire (2003) the country, once left behind by the young female protagonist, is seen as “the great southern wound”. Hazzard was keen to add, however, that these impressions derived from the Australia of her youth, and were compounded by personal unhappiness.

Out of her tribulations she developed a private, passionate affair with literature. The ease with which Helen Driscoll, the 16-year-old at the centre of The Great Fire, moves in the world of Shakespeare and the classics was a facility mirrored in Hazzard herself. Her books are populated by people who are rescued by literature from the disorder of their lives. Of one of her heroines she wrote that her childhood, “like all childhoods, was unhappy”.

In discussions of Hazzard’s fiction, particularly The Great Fire and another multilayered novel, The Transit of Venus (1980), the name of Henry James is likely to be invoked. When I interviewed her for the Guardian in 2006, however, she dismissed the influence. “There is a myth that I was raised on James. I had hardly read anything of him when I started to write.” She could scarcely object to the comparison, except for one thing: “I think I’m funnier than Henry James.”

Tolstoy and Conrad were among her enduring favourites (over the weekend I spent on Capri, she read Conrad’s Victory, for the umpteenth time). She also recalled how, as a schoolgirl in 1947, she had asked for Greene’s novel The Heart of the Matter “for Christmas. After that, I always read his books.”

Once settled in New York, Hazzard began working for the United Nations Secretariat, “in the clerical category”. The work itself, she would say, “was virtually meaningless and cruelly underpaid”. The experience provided fuel for a collection of short stories, People in Glass Houses (1967), in which the UN is identified as “the Organisation”, embracing a way of life all its own. Men “fall in love with the Organisation”, then gradually cease to do anything that does not entail “Organisation duties ... Organisation requirements”. It also gave her material for two highly critical non-fiction books about the UN, Defeat of an Ideal (1973) and Countenance of Truth (1990).

To Hazzard, the UN was “an appalling institution”, whose weaknesses and self-interest the public chose to ignore. She believed that the western powers used the UN to extend their own influence, and in a Times Literary Supplement article of 1982 she referred to “the almost unbounded power of the United States at the United Nations”. At a personal level, she found herself miserably paid, discriminated against, with faint hope, as a woman, of advancement. “A more demoralised place I have never met up with since,” she told me in a voice that retained some strains of her mother’s Scottish accent, but no Australian notes. “Especially a place claiming that it is doing something to advance humanity.” When she began to write, she had to “request permission from the UN to publish”, and to prove that “there was nothing interesting from their point of view”.

The second of her two books on the UN, triggered by the Kurt Waldheim affair, when his wartime service as an intelligence officer in the German Wehrmacht was revealed in 1985, began as a series of articles in the New Yorker. Hazzard enjoyed a long relationship with the magazine during its “high” period, under the refined stewardship of the editor, William Shawn, and the fiction editor, William Maxwell. In 1961 she sent a story to Maxwell – “I hadn’t ever written a story before” – to which he responded with an acceptance, a cheque, and a request for more. The debut, Harold, is included in her first collection, Cliffs of Fall and Other Stories (1963). She said that when she entered Maxwell’s office for the first time, “I took one look and thought, everything will be all right now.”

Maxwell encouraged her to write a novel. “I told him I couldn’t imagine writing a novel, but he said, ‘And yet you will ...’ A year later, I was writing The Evening of the Holiday.” The story of a love affair, set in Italy, it was published in 1966. These were prolific years for Hazzard. In 1970, a second novel, The Bay of Noon, appeared. It is based on a set of tangled relationships featuring, among others, a moody Scotsman and an infantile though charming Italian.

It was through friends at the New Yorker that Hazzard met Steegmuller, himself a novelist, as well as a translator of Flaubert and the biographer of Jean Cocteau and other French writers. The matchmaker was Muriel Spark, who introduced the couple at a party in 1963. He was 25 years older and had been married before. The union with Hazzard appears to have been an exceptionally happy one, ending with Steegmuller’s death in 1994. Conversation with Hazzard was always likely to return to what Francis thought about this or that, or what she had told him after witnessing some curiosity in Capri, or in Naples, where they also kept a house.

In 2008, she published a collection of dispatches from Naples, The Ancient Shore, with Steegmuller named as co-author (his contribution describes a mugging and the subsequent treatment by doctors and police). Of her later successes – for instance, winning the US National Book award for The Great Fire in 2003 — she would say that her only disappointment was that Francis wasn’t there to share the pleasure. The couple accrued a distinguished art collection – Picasso and Matisse hung in the hallway of her Manhattan apartment – which Hazzard intended to bequeath to a museum.

It was evident that Greene played a dominant role in her life, even though she shuddered when recalling an act of mischief or malevolence. “He had something in his makeup,” she said. “He didn’t want to be happy.” She felt that Greene “didn’t care for what I wrote”, but was able to laugh at his reflexive remark, whenever someone else praised one of her novels, “Yes, it had marvellous reviews.”

Greene on Capri: A Memoir not only describes the friendship, which despite its turbulent character endured for more than 20 years, but offers a succinct account of the island as an artistic haven in the 19th and 20th centuries. A walk through the narrow streets of the elevated town where she had her tiny apartment (Greene’s somewhat grander place was in neighbouring Anacapri, the island’s second town) was likely to be interrupted by greetings and solicitations. She was troubled, however, by corrupt practices in land purchase and development intruding from Naples.

At the National Book awards ceremony in 2003, Hazzard found herself provoked into a spontaneous defence of highbrow literature against the populism which, she felt, had come to dominate the TV screen and the bestseller list. Stephen King, who preceded her, had taken the assembled literati to task for its critical neglect of writers such as John Grisham, Tom Clancy and himself. When Hazzard stepped up, she retorted that merely “giving us a list of those who are most read at this moment” did not amount to an argument, and missed the point of what literature was for and what, at its best, we expect from it. In her own case, it was “the expression of something in a supreme way. Once it has been said, it’s both an exorcism and an exhalation. An intensification of life.”

A visitor to Naples offered the sweet description of Hazzard as having “the presence of a prima ballerina now in retirement … graceful and charming, with a delicate beauty”. In 2000, she was made an honorary citizen of Capri.

• Shirley Hazzard, writer, born 30 January 1931; died 12 December 2016


James Campbell

The GuardianTramp

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